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30 Jan 2008 : Column 444

Sadly, my hon. Friend mentioned the important matter of antisocial behaviour. I want to be clear. Nobody is above or exempt from the law. The law applies to Gypsies and Travellers as it does to the settled community. Every community—I stress, every community in this country, regardless of whether they are settled, Travellers or any other community—needs to be confident that action will be taken by the relevant authorities, whether that is the police, trading standards, other parts of the local authority or other agencies, against the small minority in society who do not abide by the law. I shall come back to the point about publishing guidance on antisocial behaviour.

At the heart of the problems described by my hon. Friend is the shortage of authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers; that is forcing them on to unauthorised sites, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North mentioned. I suggest that the problem causes tension within the Traveller community and between Travellers and the settled communities. Local authorities are forced to spend resources dealing with the problems of unauthorised encampments; that often involves displacing the problem from one area to the next.

The Government believe that everyone should have the opportunity of a decent place to live. That is why housing remains high on the political agenda, if not at the top of it, and why we are committed to increasing the supply and quality of affordable housing. Furthermore, I am currently serving on the Committee stage of the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which establishes the Homes and Communities Agency and improves security of tenure for Gypsy and Traveller communities.

Increased authorised site provision, coupled with the effective use of enforcement powers and a joined-up approach between the various organisations, is vital to addressing the problems highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire and others tonight. I believe strongly that there are incentives for everyone—Gypsies and Travellers, local authorities and the settled community—to increase the amount of authorised site provision. That will reduce unauthorised camping and the tensions that that can cause with the settled community. It will also reduce the need for—and cost of—enforcement action, and help tackle the serious social exclusion experienced by Gypsies and Travellers, by helping to improve health and education outcomes. Everybody benefits when more authorised sites are provided.

I mentioned that site provision will reduce the amount of resources that authorities spend on costly enforcement action. The Commission for Racial Equality estimates that at about £18 million a year, and the Audit Commission referred to the issue in relation to one local authority as a “wasteful use of resources”. Site provision also makes it quicker and easier to take enforcement action where unauthorised camping does take place. To answer directly the point rightly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), there is a range of powers available to landowners, local authorities and the police to deal with unauthorised encampments. Those range from common law powers and civil procedures in the county court, to the powers of local authorities and the police to direct trespassers to leave land in certain circumstances.

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Police powers to direct trespassers to leave land will often be the quickest policy, as they can be used without reference to the courts. However, there are other things that authorities and the police can do to speed up the process, including having protocols in place to deal with cases of unauthorised sites. However, I come back to the central point of my argument: enforcement action will always be quicker and more effective where appropriate authorised sites are available. I suggest that that should be the priority for local authorities.

Our task group on site provision and enforcement—chaired by Sir Brian Briscoe, a former chief executive of the Local Government Association—has reviewed the operation of enforcement powers and taken evidence from local authorities and others involved in using the powers. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire asked whether we need more legislation. In its final report, “The Road Ahead” published in December, the group concluded that the scope and nature of existing enforcement powers are sufficient, but that considerable improvements could be made to the way in which they are used. We are committed to ensuring that those improvements are made.

We have already provided guidance for local authorities and others on unauthorised encampments and developments. It sets out the powers available, and provides practical advice on their use. We have also published guidance on managing unauthorised camping which emphasises the need for a joined-up approach between the different organisations with an interest. I understand that the Scottish Government have produced similar guidance. I mentioned my hon. Friend’s point about published guidance on antisocial behaviour. In the spring we will be publishing guidance on tackling antisocial behaviour as it relates to Gypsies and Travellers. I hope that he finds that reassuring.

In England, in order to achieve the increase in accommodation that we seek, we have established a new framework for site provision. Local authorities are required by the Housing Act 2004 to undertake accommodation needs assessments for Gypsies and Travellers in the same way as they do for the rest of the community. All those assessments should have been completed by now.

Regional assemblies are at various stages in the process of revising their regional spatial strategies to specify the number of pitches that each local authority will be expected to deliver. Authorities will then need to identify sites to deliver those pitches in their development plan documents. I understand that the Scottish Government have asked local authorities to consider the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their local housing strategies.

To back up the new framework in England, we have increased the resources available for Gypsy and Traveller sites. Since 2006 we have spent £33.6 million, which will deliver an additional 284 pitches and
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refurbish 111 sites. In the last few weeks, I have announced that we will make a further £97 million available for new sites, and the refurbishment of existing sites, between 2008 and 2011.

Mr. Donohoe: When we originally set up the camps in my constituency, the condition was that when a local authority agreed to set up a camp it was given more powers to move on illegal Travellers who might turn up in the area. Is that likely to feature in the legislation to which the Minister has referred?

Mr. Wright: As I said earlier, the task group chaired by Sir Brian Briscoe judged that the current enforcement procedures were adequate but were not being complied with effectively enough. I must deal with that; I think that the existing framework is sufficient, but that we must push local authorities and others to ensure that it is implemented as much as possible.

I was talking about additional funding, which my hon. Friend raised in his excellent speech. I believe that the Scottish Government have also made grant available.

The task group that I mentioned concluded that our policy for the provision of sites was sound, but that progress in delivering new sites was slow. It recommended that where there was an established need for new Gypsy and Traveller sites, local authorities should begin work on preparing a site allocations development plan document now.

The new framework that we have established is crucial to making progress on site provision in England. Coupled with effective enforcement action—which I fully appreciate is necessary—and a joined-up approach to the issues, an increase in site provision will help to create strong, cohesive communities. Only by significantly increasing the number of authorised sites will we ensure that all parts of the community have a decent place to live. That will reduce the tensions that unauthorised sites can cause with the settled community. It will also reduce the need for, and cost of, enforcement action, and will help to make it easier to use enforcement powers, as well as improving the life outcomes of the most socially excluded group in society.

I congratulate my hon. Friend again on securing a debate on a very important issue. I thank him for giving me an opportunity to explain why the provision of authorised sites is so important, and why it should be seen in the policy context of affordable and appropriate accommodation for all. I hope that we shall have an opportunity to discuss the matter on other occasions, and I should be pleased to meet my hon. Friend and others for that purpose.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Eight o’ clock.

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